By choosing to be dungeon masters, we accept the responsibility for making our games consistently fun. While the definition of “fun” varies widely between groups, and even between players in the same group, one thing few players like is an adventure that doesn’t challenge the heroes.
This post does not suggest that every encounter should be a life-or-death challenge, or some sort of personalized challenge between the players’ heroes and the DM’s monsters. Indeed, sprinkling a few less challenging encounters in adventures helps players sense how powerful their characters are becoming, which is an important part of the game.
This post will suggest, though, that sometimes an entire adventure becomes too easy for the heroes. This condition can arise from several factors, the most common including:
Flawed encounter design. Nobody intentionally creates encounters that don’t work as planned, but we all know that it does happen. While the fourth edition of the Dungeons & Dragons game goes so far as creating experience point “budgets” which vary by level and number of heroes in the party to help avoid this problem, it still happens. And even if a Dungeon Master’s “encounter math” is correct, human error can come into play; a DM may forget about resistances, recently-acquired powers or magic items the heroes have, but players unfailingly remember them with perfect clarity. Using unmodified published adventures instead of one’s own can add to this problem; the combined ablities of your specific party may not have been what the adventure’s author had in mind, and your heroes may have an easier time in the adventure because of that situation.
Exeptionally creative or experienced players. These folks have typically been around the D&D block a few times – or a few editions – and although most of them are honorable enough not to use their out-of-game knowledge to benefit their characters in-game, they’ve played so many adventures that they can usually guess what the monsters are going to do in a given situation, and make wiser decisions based on that knowledge. These players are also more likely to develop strategies of dealing with situations that you fail to consider, an unfortuante side-effect of you, as DM, being outnumbered five-to-one in the brain department. While it is certainly wrong to punish players for creative or wise play, these veterans are as likely to get bored with easy encounters as everyone else.
Dumb luck. Sometimes, the dice just like players more than they like you. The heroes make multiple critical hits, the monsters consistently roll poorly, and what was supposed to be a life-or-death struggle becomes a heroic steamroll of the adventure’s proposed challenges. Dungeon masters who roll their dice behind screens can sometimes “fudge” die rolls without players knowing it, but if the players suspect you’re doing it, they will feel cheated.
So, what are dungeon masters to do when their epics start to look like comedies? There are a couple of options, such as:
Roll with it. If the players are having fun or feeling empowered by the ease of the scenario, keep playing. Technically, less-than-challenging encounters are only a problem if the players seem bored. If you’re the only one at the table who wants a life-and-death struggle, put your own desires aside for the greater enjoyment of the game.
Remember your military history. Sometimes, a combatant will make something easy on purpose, with the intent of luring an opponent into an unfavorable position. Consider the Battle of Cannae during the Second Punic War, when the Carthaginian General Hannibal was faced with being steamrolled by a vast Roman army.
When forming for the battle, Hannibal intentionally placed his weakest forces in the center and his strongest forces on the flanks, and placed his line of battle with its back to a river, leaving little room to fall back. Seeing this situation, the Romans charged forward, seeking to drive the Carthaginians into the river and smash their army.
When the two armies met, Hannibal’s center caved in as the weaker troops were overwhelmed – as Hannibal knew they would be – but this put Hannibal’s best forces facing the Roman flanks and rear. Double-enveloped by the Cathaginians to either flank and to the rear, with a river in front of them, the Roman army was annihilated.
In a similar way, villains and monsters can put weaker forces along specific routes to encourage heroes to enter their territories by those routes. The players have no way of knowing that the “easy” route before them was the only one the DM had planned, and so if the monsters in the next encounter are reinforced (having more monsters sudenly appear during a battle will make players feel cheated), the DM can say that the monsters wanted the heroes to have any easy time up to that point. Be sure to award experience for the additional monsters, and the players will probably not complain.
The key is to subtly increase the difficulty of the adventure mid-stream; as you become more familiar with the way your heroes operate, you’ll be able to stem the issue of less-than-challenging adventures well in advance.